Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

If last year was any indicator — which it probably was — this may be the last fiction book I read with any kind of efficacy for about 9 months.  Sniff.  There aren’t many complaints I have about grad school, but at the top of a very short list is this: my reading is taken up by articles and nonfiction, which taxes the brain and the soul.  I need my fiction, people!  I don’t know when most of you read books during the day, but before bed has always been a favorite for me, with quiet afternoon a close second.  Bedtime after a long day though is disastrous for remembering plot points and characters, no matter how poignant or abrasive or thrilling the story.  The Paris Wife is next on my list, so let’s hope I don’t let poor Mrs. Hemingway languish for months and months as I read one page per day.

Swamplandia! had all the weirdness I want from a book — a story about a family of alligator wrestlers who fall on hard times when a rival theme park moves in and takes away their customers.  It really turned out to be three sections — the first section about the family members finding outlets for their grief after the mother’s death (not a spoiler), the second an unintentional group of short stories going back and forth between Ava and Kiwi’s respective journeys, and the third a “dark night of the soul” type ending that culminates suddenly in the most Pollyanna way I could imagine.

I liked the quirkiness of the first section.  The family history and the set up of the Swamplandia! park and especially the descriptions of the mother were heartening with just the right amount of darkness to them.  Russell created a family that was wacky, quintessentially American, and easy to love.  Then in the second section everything falls apart, and although the humor is still pushing around in the peripherals,  it just seems like nothing is actually going to go right for anyone and the whole book becomes hopeless and dismal.  The reader watches characters make choices that seem not only weird, but are definitely bad. It’s not uncomfortable exactly — dismal really is the right word.

And then every bad thing you imagined might happen to the characters after their bad decisions (which, by the way, work because they are adolescents.  I didn’t feel any kind of sympathy for Chief Bigtree, the father, because there’s just no world that exists in my head where a parent should make the decision he does) DOES happen to them.  But suddenly!  The great Deus ex machina to the rescue!  And abruptly everything’s back to the tone of the first section again — the family is going to make it through this together, yo ho ho, isn’t the world funny?

Not really.

I haven’t read anything else by Russell, and I did really enjoy her writing early in the story.  I just appreciate consistency in the books I read.  If I should be ready for a long deep look into the evils of the human psyche, I can do that and appreciate that.  If I should be ready for a lovely story about the strengths of families and the storms they can weather together, I can do that and appreciate that.  But I can’t switch back and forth between the two.

I hear good things about Russell’s first book, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, as if that title wasn’t enough to make me want to read it.  And although this is largely a complainy post, I really did enjoy the book — just not as one unit.  So I will check out this other novel, if only to see how many girls are raised by wolves and whether St. Lucy makes it through alive.

In about 20 minutes, I’m off to my first class of fall quarter.  Good bye, summer!  Good bye, fiction books!  It’s me, not you!  I’ll try to keep in touch, novels!

A Marvelous Trio of Books

This summer has been super duper cool, temperature wise, and therefore a great time for reading some non-academic tomes. I also finally got a library card to my new library — Patrick and I went to check it out one day.  He had a little trouble with the quiet part, but shelves and shelves of books?  He was sold.  And the best part is I finally figured out how to get library books on my Kindle!  2004 here I come!

So I first checked out Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs.  The creepy cover got me interested, but having the author stand behind us in a line at the LA Times Book Festival got me even more intrigued.  You mean he’s a real person?!?!?  Yes, a real person with a fabulous kate spade typewriter satchel.  The story was fantastic, and definitely one that did give me pause to read right before bedtime. The monsters in this one, and the heroes too for that matter, are skin-crawly creepy sometimes.  There are pictures, real pictures, all throughout the book which fit with the story or reveal things about the plot or characters, or sometimes just creep you out.  The macabre in me really enjoyed this book, and I’ll definitely check out the second one when it comes out.

I was way behind the curve on the next book, but I am so glad I read it.  When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead takes its inspiration from A Wrinkle in Time, and I still have vivid memories of the Children’s Theater adaptation from the early 90s.  Now when I read young adult novels, I really get interested in the parent characters — go figure, right?  Miranda’s mom and her soon-to-be step-dad were excellent, and the little glimpses we got of Annemarie’s dad made me want to know her family more.  I guess it’s only natural that as I grow older, I’m more interested in the hesitance towards commitment in Miranda’s mom than I am in the difficulties the kids themselves are having at school.

The third in my trio was A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness, and wow.  Heavy, dark, and excellent.  While dealing with his mother’s illness and impending death, the adolescent main character “accidentally” calls a monster to help him.  The grieving the protagonist goes through is realistic — messy, confusing, heartbreaking.  And the illustrations reminded me of the ones from Scary Stories to Read in the Dark…so, pretty creepy also.  But this book made me cry in the end, and not because of anything sappy.  Unexpected from the cover art.

All three books gave me little thrills and chills — shimmy shivers, as I call them.  There were moments for each of them when I was a little afraid to get up in the night, and when for sure I didn’t want to brave the walk up to the marina bathrooms after dark.  Shimmy shivers.  But they all had strong main characters that I could really feel for, and get involved with, which is just the kind of release and literary relationship I’m looking for in a summer read.  I recommend them all, if you’re in the market for a summer read that will help you work some emotions out and release some pent-up stress with good thought and deep feelings.

Since I haven’t written in a while, here are some of the other books I read this spring with abridged reviews.  They each deserve their own feature-length extravaganza, but the books keep coming, and any specific thoughts I had about them are a little lost in the haze.

Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson — amazing supernatural/religious/sci-fi mash-up with great twists!  Put it on your list!

Broken Harbor by Tana French — I loved French’s first two books, the third was too similar to the others, and this fourth one was void of surprise and overtly gruesome.

Anasi Boys by Neil Gaiman — LOVE!  Can we get more stories from the American Gods world, please?  Please?

Villette by Charlotte Bronte — This book changed my thinking.  Whatever was going on with those Bronte sisters, man, they made it happen.  I assume this one takes the back seat to Jane Eyre because the ending is…unexpected, but I think that maybe… … MAYBE… … I liked this one better than Jane Eyre.  Read it.  Do it now.

Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente — Fun, but I think it would have been much more meaningful to me if I knew more about Russian mythology or fairy tales.  I was able to figure out who some characters were, but ultimately, I was an outsider on the inside jokes here.

Catching up – Quips!

I am alive!  Who would have guessed it?  Not anyone reading this blog.  You would have thought I had finally nailed myself into a coffin with my worsted weight noose, but NO!  I am still here!  I am still knitting and reading, but with this PhD program, suddenly writing isn’t something I really want to do in my spare time anymore.  Which is a pity.  So we’ll have ourselves a little catch-up post here, and then maybe I can keep a little better track of things after that.

So last you heard, I had read The Beautiful and the Damned and it was a stirring experience.  After that, I figured it was time for some comfort food…book style.  So I used the power of my Kindle to find all those wonderful little Arthurian romance/legend novels I loved so much.  I read Persia Woolley’s Guinevere Trilogy, which is a long time favorite of mine.  I found the third book at a library book sale back in late middle school.  The cover was SUPER romance novelly — Guinevere sitting on a throne with billowing red hair, an look of defiance, and full, painted lips with a brilliant velvet dress spilling onto the floor around her.  It was definitely a cover I was embarrassed to be seen with — I think I read most of it at home.  But you know the old saying…regardless of the crazy artwork, the third book is fantastic — the fall of Camelot, with relate-able characters who I really grew to love.   Eventually, I went back to the library and found the first two books, which were fun, too, but the third one takes the cake.  Rereading them again after so many years was comforting and provided a fantastic escape from the stress of starting my graduate education.

I also struck out on new Arthurian territory, with a book called Gawain and Lady Green by Anne Eliot Crompton.  The author has also written an excellent and unique Arthurian legend called Merlin’s Harp, which I devoured in high school.  Merlin’s Harp is a feminist retelling through the eyes of Nimue, but it isn’t easily recognizable as the Arthurian tale.  Not at first.  The main character only hops in on the tale we’re all familiar with every now and then.  Gawain and Lady Green is, as you English majors out there might expect, a retelling of Gawain and the Green Knight.  It’s cute, and also comfort-foody, and unique again — if you don’t know the story of Gawain, you might not recognize the novel for what it is.  But I’m not sure you can only enjoy it if you know the story…I could see many a young adult enjoying this book simply for itself.

I also received a book from meine Mutti-in-law, called Bringing Up Bebe — One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman.  HIGHLY recommend!  Especially if you’ve ever been weirded out by the stress American culture brings into parenting.  If you’ve ever stumbled upon the kind of crazy that only we Americans can come up with on Facebook or blogs — fatwa on [insert trend here], why aren’t you afraid of this?  don’t you realize how your child’s life will be RUINED if they do thing x? — then you know what I mean.  This book is the perfect remedy.  It helped me breath a sigh of relief, that we weren’t raising Patrick like a weirdo — we were kind of raising him like a little Frenchman.  Which he is, to a certain percentage point.  The section on food is fantastic.  I wish I could enroll in a creche and eat like that — amazing.  A really fun read that helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one who thought our society’s expectation that being a mother = living in a constant state of freak-out is a bogus expectation.

Devil’s Advocate: Obviously, if you’re not freaking out, you’re not paying attention.  Am I right, America?!?  Who’s with me?!?  Let’s be sure to stress ourselves out about every feature of our child’s life, because if we don’t, then mass ax-murdering is CERTAINLY in their future.  (Did I conjugate that correctly?)

Then, Christmas rolled around, and I got a couple books for the jolly holiday!  The first one I read was from Drew, a T.C. Boyle novel that took place in our new home.  It’s called When the Killing’s Done and it was excellent.  By far the best of his novels I’ve read.  Subtle themes that progressed as the plot unfolded, characters who were true to themselves throughout, and realistic to boot.  Really excellent.  A literary treat, after all my Arthur comfort diving.  It also takes place in …drumroll… the Channel Islands National Park!  Right across the ocean from us!  And parts of it take place in our HOME — Ventura, Oxnard, Santa Barbara, Ojai — so fun!  Nothing like a book based on where you live to make you feel special.  Of course, almost all the boats in it sink to the bottom of the sea, and it does live up to it’s title, but…it’s still kind of a trip.

Let’s start with that for now.  I’ve got three more books to add, plus the one I am currently reading.  But I think if I don’t publish this post now, it may be the end of poor little Knitquip: the blog.  And I can’t have that.  PUBLISH!

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Ahh, Persuasion.  This is my favorite Jane Austen novel, and for good reason.  It is so mature, and so…perfect.  I read this one in high school, and, when I recently decided to read it again, I couldn’t quite remember what is was about…but I remembered staying up nights to finish it, something I usually reserved for the Bronte books in high school.  The reread did not disappoint.  In fact, I think I enjoyed it more now than I did then.   I fell in love with Anne Elliot and Frederick Wentworth a little more this time…their slow joining is so wonderful.  I read the last pages about three extra times, from Frederick’s romantic and impassioned letter to their exclamations of love for each other.

But really what I love best about this book is how mature their love is.  They are both older — they know what they have missed these past 8 years since their estrangement.  When they finally are able to reveal their feelings for each other, they immediately seem like husband and wife — no overly gushing scenes, no teasing or playing.  There is something so real about it…I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is wonderful.

And the MOVIE!  After I finished, we watched the 1995 version.  Perfect!  Apparently there’s another more recent version that Austen-internet-groupies seem to love.  As long as it doesn’t have Keira Knightley in it, I’ll check that one out too.

The minor characters are delightfully wicked, and I cheered for Anne and Frederick at the end, as they put aside the fruitless “persuasions” of the world around them and followed their hearts.  Sounds corny as I describe it in a lacking summary here, but not in the hands of Austen.

Also, now I’m excited to make the Sweater for Anne and the Sweater for Frederick from Interweave Knits!  They’ve started putting out a fabulous new knitting pattern magazine called Jane Austen Knits — all of the patterns are based on characters from her novels or inspired by the events.  The two sweaters are pictured here — and although these models look bored and a bit sullen, I’m sure Drew and I will be smiling when we wear them.  No word on when I’ll get to that yet, but as soon as I can persuade myself to purchase some yarn, they’ll be made.  Probably…in 8 years?

The Girl Who Played with Fire AND The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larrson

The conclusion I’ve drawn from these books is that Sweden is a terrible place.  It’s always dreary.  The men are either sex offenders or waiting for an opportunity to become a sex offender. And it’s cold.

I assume, for the Swedish people’s sake, that this book is not an accurate portrayal of their country.

But the books were great!  I know I’m a few years behind it all, reading the Millennium Trilogy waaaay after the song by the same name was on the charts (remember that?  Some British artist who was super hot at the moment, and it recycled a lick from a Bond song?).  The plot was still hair-raising and suspenseful — I really wasn’t sure what was going to happen in the end.  And the HUGE cliffhanger at the end of the second book — well, I had to start right in on the third immediately.

But, as most riveting plots do, I think my family was happy to see the end of these books for me.  As twist after twist occurred, I couldn’t put it down. I was reading on my Kindle, which became an enabler to my desire to read this book at all times.   I would set it up to read while I was brushing my teeth for bed, I would set it up to read while I was blow-drying my hair in the mornings, I would sneak it out while waiting for lunch dates — it went with me everywhere.

And the trial at the end was really gut-wrenching.  What was going to happen?  How was she possibly going to get out of the quagmire she was in?  I’m trying to be vague here, in case you haven’t read the books — hopefully I’m not ruining anything for you.

And as a follow-up to my post about The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, where I really hated on the character of Lisbeth Salander (which I stand by), I will say that with the events at the beginning of “Played with Fire,” I was with her all the way.  She grew up as a a character, and she learned from her past mistakes, and she became stronger and got me to like her.  A good switch-around for any character.

But yeah — not visiting Sweden any time soon.  At least not until I become a better hacker.

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Aah, the comfort-food book.  I never read this one as a kid, but it is such a down-pillow of a book.  I didn’t feel any need to rush through it, because it seemed pretty clear what was eventually going to happen to poor little Sara Crewe.  I could take my time, one chapter, then a night off, straight to sleep, then maybe just half a chapter, and so on.  But while I was reading this book, it just gave me that comforting feeling — the kind you can only get from a story that is predictable, sweet, and still interesting or home cooked mac and cheese.

I loved The Secret Garden when I was younger, and this book is much the same — childhood in India, loving parent, suddenly orphaned, a girl in search of mystery and family connections — it’s sweet.  Sweet is the best word.

This was another of my read-it-or-lose-it books as we prepare for our move.  After finishing it, I think we’ll keep it around.  It will be a great read with Patrick when he’s older — perfect bedtime reading.

I had a moment in the book, when Sara befriends a rat who lives in her room, when I thought something horrible was going to happen to either the rat or her sparrow friend — but there was no need to fear.  It’s not that kind of book, and I’d just been watching too much Luther.

 

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien

As we’re trying to think ahead to the future of a small space, I’m combing through all of our books (of which there are many) and reading as many of them as I can rather than branching out too much right now.  It’s possible that many of my little literary friends, which have for so long sat and watched from a shelf will be stored in a box for four years, and so I’m going to give as many of them as I can one last good read (or, in some cases, a first good read) before packing them away for the forseeable future.  Gosh — Debbie Downer all of a sudden.

I feel like I read The Hobbit at some point in my young life.  I feel like it, but now having read it either again or for the first time, I’m not sure I ever did.  Perhaps my maternal unit will read this post and can let me know if we ever actually read it together — we read books together at bedtime until I was in late middle school.  It was the best way to end the day — me and Mom, squashed together on my little twin bed, taking turns reading chapters of Lizard Music or maybe Buffalo Brenda.  Patrick and Drew and I end each day the same way now, and it’s so fun — books and bedtime just go together.

I knew the story — well, at least the basics.  I VIVIDLY remember the amazing adaptation at the Children’s Theater in MN when I was younger.  Smaug took up half the stage, but it was so dark, he was only a shimmering outline of jewels.  And I remembered the dwarves and all their wonderful rhyming names.  But as I read it, there were so many parts to the story that I feel certain I would have remembered if I had read it before.  Beorn?  How could I have forgotten a character like Beorn?

I do love Tolkien’s way of understated drama, making it seem only as treacherous as you, the reader, are willing to make it in your own imagination.  He has a gift for touching scenes of brevity as well.  When Bilbo and Thorin speak for the last time, it did tear me up a bit — he’s got a knack for really making you feel the sorrow in a moment with very few words.  I read back over the section a few times, but couldn’t really pinpoint exactly what he said that made me so emotional — it was just there somehow, in the words.

Whether a read or a reread, I really enjoyed it.  At this stressful time, when so many things are changing for us (albeit for the positive!), it was soothing to read just a chapter a night — just like with Mom — and think about Bilbo and his adventure that was only an adventure after it was finished.  So much more calming to think about someone else’s difficulties and tribulations than to consider your own right before sleep. And I do love the hobbits.  Their world view is one to strive for.

And who can possibly wait until December for the movie?!?  Martin Freeman?  Yes!  Ian McKellan, back again?  Double yes!

And of course!  I did remember the trolls!

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

After reading The Run Diary earlier this fall, I knew I needed to revisit this one.  I’ve lived in Vegas for almost 7 years now…wait, fact check.  For real?  It’s been 7 years already?  Yep — 7 years.  And now that I’ve lived here, I feel like I know the kinds of things about this city that only “locals” can know.  So it was time to recheck out Thompson’s book — you know, the one from that movie with Johnny Depp.  He’s the old guy who plays Jack Sparrow.

Anyway.

It’s spot on.  I mean, all the drug culture stuff and the crazed stupors are still hysterical and gritty, but what I wanted to see this time is how well does Thompson paint this town?  Does he nail it?  Answer?  Yes.  What’s difficult is that the Vegas Thompson describes is still the Vegas of today — even though Vegas would rather die than admit it.  But it’s true.  The kind of depraved negligence he shows is the way this city runs.  The confusion between whether it’s a city or just a tourist dump is the lifeblood of conversation here.  The city just built a beautiful Arts Center — really, very gorgeous — for shows and for the symphony to play in.  But all the town can talk about is whether it will attract any tourists.  It’s like the entire point of an Arts Center is missed — who cares about the tourists?  That building is for YOU, locals.  Or — Drew’s favorite example — NPR ran a spot for weeks about the possible smoking ban that went something like this: “New York, LA, Paris…what do all these cities have that Las Vegas doesn’t?  A smoking ban.”  Well, I guess that’s true.  Of course they also have a ton of OTHER, more IMPORTANT things that draw the line between actual “city” and…here.

Fair warning.  I know I’m hating.  But this town can’t keep ignoring this stuff.  How much cultural or educational growth can a place have when the best a school can hope for in a partnership is with a casino that has a restaurant called “The Pink Taco?”

But the moments of clarity in between drugged fantasies are worth anyone’s time.  And it is still true that Circus Circus is exactly what the entire hep world would be doing on a Saturday night if the Nazis had won the war.  Again, spot on.

I hope to read this book in another 10 years or so and say, “Wow, Las Vegas is a lot different than it used to be!”  But if it’s already been 40 years….well, I’m not going to slow down through bat country.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

This year I am teaching an Honors English class for the first time, and it is really fun.  It’s not always that different from my Regular classes, honestly, for myriad reasons, but when it is/can be different, I really enjoy it.

The Stranger by Albert Camus is a book I would never have considered doing with my regular classes.  I really wasn’t sure it would be a good choice with my Honors kids, either.  I read The Plauge by Camus in my senior English class in high school, and it was one of my favorites reads that year.  So much going on, so unlike any other book I had ever read — it was fascinating. In all honesty, I wasn’t sure my students were really up to what this author had to offer.  But everyone deserves a chance, right?

Right.

So we read it anyway.  It’s a short read — I barrelled through it in three nights — and my students trudged through it in 2 weeks.  I can’t really speak to how much they got out of it — it was obvious from some of their essays that some understood better than others, but isn’t that always the case? — but I can speak to how interesting I found it.  I haven’t read a book like this in a long time…a book that makes me wonder exactly what the author intended for his reader as they read.  The imagery was stark and chosen with care, the main character was confusing — at one moment, I would think I had him figured out, and in the next phrase, he would confound me with his actions.  I love a book that can get my attention so thoroughly in the middle of a busy school year, one that can make me feel as though I’m in an English class of one.

Not a read for everyone, because the “uplifting” part of this book is quite dark, but the truths in it were undeniable.  All in all, it made me want to revisit The Plague, because I bet there were just a few things my own little high school brain wasn’t quite ready for yet.  Time for another shot in the dark.

When I began teaching the

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome and To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Years ago, I read To Say Nothing of the Dog and loved it.  I knew there were references flying past me at every page turn that I had no knowledge of, but it didn’t matter.  The book was just fun.  A romantic blend of sci-fi with all the Victorian era aplomb one could every want or need — no need for reference catching.  I just enjoyed this story of two historians trapped in time, the man dashing in his boater, the woman described as a naiad out of a Waterhouse painting. I’m a little in love with both of them.

But the whole book — including the title — was written in homage to the Victorian book, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) by Jerome K. Jerome.  First of all — awesome name.  Second of all — I had to finally read the mother of all references.  Nancy Pearl, who I used to follow with regularity before she quasi-retired, is always going on and on about what a funny book it is.  And it is funny.  Allow me to illustrate:

The narrator when trying to decide whether to partake of a trip down(up?) the Thames with his two other natty friends: It is a curious fact, but nobody ever is sea-sick on land.  At sea, you come across plenty of people very bad indeed, whole boat-loads of them; but I never met a man yet, on land, who had ever known at all what it was to be sea-sick.  Where the thousands upon thousands of bad sailors that swarm in every ship hide themselves when they are on land is a mystery.

The narrator when his friend has slept in too late on their first morning of travel: There was George, throwing away in hideous sloth the inestimable gift of time; his valuable life, every second of which he would have to account for hereafter, passing away from him, unused.  He might have been up stuffing himself with eggs and bacon, irritating the dog, or flirting with the slavey, instead sprawling there, sunk in soul-clogging oblivion.

Simple observation: But who wants to be foretold the weather?  It is bad enough when it comes, without our having the misery of knowing about it beforehand.

And, our narrator on a lunch gone wrong: It cast a gloom over the boat, there being no mustard.  We ate our beef in silence.  Existence seemed hollow and uninteresting.  we thought of the happy days of childhood, and sighed.

The whole book was just a wonderful daydream into a time where gentlemen of a certain destiny did not work, did not worry, just boated with friends and reflected thereupon — like a Jeeves and Wooster novel, without all the hijinks.

So as soon as I finished the book, I knew I had to reread To Say Nothing of the Dog.  And it was not a disappointment — all the more funny, now that I understood most of the references.  And now, with teh interweb in full swing, any reference I didn’t know, I could just google.  Or Lougle (your own reference to check).  Ned Henry, our hero, was all the more dashing because I now knew about his favorite book.  Verity Kindle, our heroine, was all the more lovely and serene now that I knew who she was constantly being compared to.

Always good to reread.  Always good to revisit.  Placet.

 

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